I take a look at the movie that started one of the biggest careers in Hollywood.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a traveling salesman on the road in the Mojave Desert in the early 1970s. While out on a long stretch of highway, David encounters an old Peterbilt 281 tanker truck driving on the road. Trying to avoid the smoke coming out of it, David passes the truck, only for it to immediately pass him. David finally passes it another time, leading it to honk angrily at him as he leaves it behind. The truck catches up at a gas station, with the driver unseen except for his hands and boots. The attendant tells David he needs a new radiator hose, but David declines, thinking it’s unnecessary. David calls to apologize to his wife for a fight the night before when she was accosted by a “friend” of David’s, before setting off again.
The truck catches up to David, goes around him, then blocks any of David’s attempts to pass. Eventually, the driver waives David past at a curve, only for David to almost hit an oncoming car. David, in a hurry for an appointment, passes the truck using an unpaved turnout, with the driver seemingly giving up. A few minutes later, though, the truck comes roaring back and tailgates David at an absurd speed, eventually causing him to spin out and crash into a fence. He goes into a nearby diner, then sees the truck outside. He tries to figure out which of the people in the diner is the driver, but when he confronts one, they hit him and drive off in a different truck. The Peterbilt 281 then starts up, revealing that the driver was never inside the diner.
David takes off again, now believing that he’s following the truck, only to be flagged down by a stuck school bus asking for a push. He tries to push it, but gets caught underneath just as the truck arrives. David panics, fearing for the school kids, and manages to get the car unstuck, but the truck pushes the kids back on the road. David starts driving, confused, and ends up at a railroad crossing. The truck comes up behind him and tries to push him into the train, but David barely avoids it, letting the truck finally get completely ahead of him. David slows down to let the truck get more distance, but the truck just waits for him beside the road. David stops to call the police and the truck destroys the phone booth just as he gets out of it. David tries to hide, but the truck is again waiting for him. He tries to get help from strangers, but the truck threatens them and they run. The truck starts flat-out chasing David just as his radiator hose finally gives out, overheating the car. He loses speed as the car dies, but manages to coast down a hill in neutral before crashing. He ends up restarting his car and uses his briefcase to send his car into the truck. When they collide, David’s car bursts into flames, blinding the driver, who goes over a cliff, roaring as the truck descends. David sits on the edge as the sun sets and throws rocks into the canyon.
This category was “First Film By A Great Director,” and I knew I was going to pick this film from the start. The only other contenders were Reservoir Dogs, because I love that film, and Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s first movie, because it’s hilariously bad. However, Duel has the rare distinction of being made at just the right time and for just the right budget that it shows everyone what Steven Spielberg was going to become, rather than just showing Steven Spielberg as we would come to know him. For those of you who would point out that the first “feature-length” thing directed by Spielberg was an episode of The Name of the Game or that, since Duel was made-for-TV, his first “theatrical feature” was The Sugarland Express, I say to you: The former was a TV episode, not a movie, Duel was released in limited theaters both domestic and abroad, and you suck. Sugarland Express is a good movie, though.
The key to Duel, much like Jaws, is in the mystery. You never see the driver of the truck. That was explicitly the intent of the script written by Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend and sixteen episodes of the original The Twilight Zone. Because you never know what the person behind it is thinking or doing, you instead start to fear the truck itself and the honking associated with it. You get the same experience from Jaws when you hear the musical score and see open water. You don’t know where the danger is, but you know it could be there. To emphasize the nature of the truck as the true enemy, Spielberg actually selected the Peterbilt truck seen in the film, because it appeared to have a face. Stephen King would later decide to throw out all subtlety in his directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive, by just putting a face on the truck. There’s a reason Spielberg is the one with the Oscars.
The film has almost no dialogue, with most of the words in the film being David’s “inner voice.” We never hear a single word from the driver, only the honks and the roaring of the engine. The most David speaks to another person is in the diner, and even then much of the dialogue is in his head. What we do here is mostly natural conversation or stream of consciousness. That means that the film relies on a lot of visual storytelling, without much in the way of exposition. This makes us relate very strongly to David throughout, and, by only giving us his thoughts, putting us in a vulnerable position the same way that he is. It makes his ultimate triumph all the greater for the viewer. Dennis Weaver was a great casting choice, because he can play normal and also crazed well, giving us a nice range between how he is at the beginning and how he slowly mentally devolves through the horrible experience of the film.
There is one more major thing in the movie that really, to me, tells of how well Spielberg understands filmmaking, and it’s easy to miss. At the beginning of the film, we’re in a POV shot of a car driving out of a city and random, changing, radio transmissions. Right before David catches up to the truck, however, we hear a radio discussion of a man talking about his insecurities of not being the head of his household. He reveals that he wears a house dress and slippers while his wife is the breadwinner. As David listens to this, he finally decides to pass the truck, setting off the events of the movie. We later find out that David had previously fought with his wife over the fact that David wasn’t willing to stand up for her recently. So, as David hears about this man who is afraid of appearing emasculated, that’s when he, as a man who has also recently been emasculated, tries to reclaim his manhood by passing the truck. As a result, he ends up drawing the eye of an apparent serial killer and being victimized for the rest of the movie. It’s that subtle motivation that most movies would miss, but Spielberg nails.
Overall, you really need to see this movie if you haven’t. It’s a hell of a film and it’s been referenced in video games, other movies, television (including Tiny Toons), music videos, and even anime (Lupin III had a reference to it in the 1970s). All despite originally being a movie of the week on ABC.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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